No one today seeking to write about love, a group I must, however reluctantly, class myself with, can escape the towering shadows of two 19th-century romantic heroes: Jane Austen’s Darcy and Charlotte Bronte’s Rochester.
What has brought this to mind was rereading “Jane Eyre,” a work I had avoided for years; I think I feared it. I recalled from last reading a vague sense of its force, closely connected to the powerful first-person narrator, who grabs the reader by the throat, relates uncomfortable truths, refuses to shut up. The initial account of the cruelty of her life with Mrs. Reed and the early days at Lowood is even more ghastly than I remembered. The narrator gives us physical and mental cruelty, burnt porridge and chilblains, hellfire-preaching hypocrites and a typhus outbreak. One feels if she could get away with writing about stinky chamberpots, she would; you sense them, just off the page. It is by turns religious, snarky, proto-feminist, and outraged. We are so completely not in the world of Jane Austen. Yet they bump up on the same uncomfortable truths: women, if not enhanced by beauty, powerful relatives or big bank accounts, are nothing; brains and courage (seemingly) get you nowhere. But where Jane Austen takes refuge in irony, Charlotte Bronte is incandescent with rage and deadly earnest.
Each heroine endures an unwanted proposal by a clergyman cousin; one is tempted to think this was a common 19th-century problem, the way women today must face verbal harassment by construction workers or boyfriends with commitment issues. By the time Jane Eyre gets hers, she has already come into the money (thanks to a well-timed death of an uncle) that will assure her independence. She has no reason to take any shit from anyone, yet she is in some danger of accepting the proposal; St. John Rivers sneakily enlists God, and God’s possible wishes for Jane Eyre, on his behalf. Elizabeth Bennet, whose financial circumstances are far less promising, apparently never considers for a moment saying yes to Mr. Collins (who apparently never thinks about bringing God into the equation). Both men are proposing, not to the real person before them, but to their imagined version of some idealized Woman. Both have fun with this, but Jane Austen has a lot more. Or to put it another way, one is made to feel the potential for humiliation and tragedy, the crazy-making unfairness of a world run by men, much more sharply in “Jane Eyre.” It’s there, in “Pride and Prejudice,” too; it’s just better hidden, under a glittering surface of wit. And oddly, it’s in contemplating “Jane Eyre” that I realize, once more, with a shock familiar and yet new, how really, really good Jane Austen was at hiding things in clear sight.
St. John Rivers and Mr. Collins serve a similar narrative function: the foil, the rejected choice who throws into relief the superior qualities of the man the heroine loves, while giving us two portraits of male arrogance. Mr. Collins is hilarious, and though broadly drawn in many respects very real, but St. John is something more subtle. In this portrait of a handsome, intelligent, godly and yet fundamentally cold man, who has managed to subdue his heart to his religious ambitions and sense of duty, Charlotte Bronte has created a remarkable character. Jane has the imagination to see what it would be like to be married to such a person, and recoils in horror.
Mr. Rochester is passionate where St. John is heartless, a tormented sinner where St. John is virtuous, ruggedly-ugly where St. John is classically symmetrical. Jane and Rochester almost immediately have that sense of a meeting of the minds; despite their difference in age and circumstance and gender, they are somehow kindred spirits. The conviction of this spiritual connection animates their love story and makes me forgive a lot of painful dialog and excessive physical description.
Elizabeth rejects Mr. Collins rather early in the novel, well before she had any thought of Mr. Darcy, so the comparison is more indirect. Mr. Collins has financial promise, but Mr. Darcy has much more. Mr. Darcy appears formal, cold and withdrawn (though we eventually learn his manners are more awkward than arrogant); Mr. Collins falls over himself with the effort to please his superiors and to follow the forms of politeness. What’s interesting is how the contrast initially is one of manners, a person’s way of being in the world. Bronte has less use for manners; she is more interested in what people are “really” like (though rereading “Jane Eyre” this time, more informed than before about social customs of the early 19th century, I realize she is far from ignoring these questions; she just does not give them the same narrative weight).
Mr. Rochester arrived on the pages of his novel 34 years after Mr. Darcy did, but internal evidence from “Jane Eyre” suggests it is set sometime around the turn of the 18/19th century, the era of “Pride and Prejudice”; the two men are thus closer contemporaries than publication history indicates. (It’s amusing to imagine them meeting in some metafictional realm; what would they talk about?) Mr. Rochester began life as a younger son, always a salient detail in 19th-century novels; his troubles started when he was pushed into an inappropriate marriage for financial gain, while Mr. Darcy, an only son, grew up with the sense of consequence and noblesse oblige that comes with knowing he would inherit a large estate. Mr. Darcy smolders with repressed feelings; Mr. Rochester, by contrast, never seems to hold anything back. Early conversations with Jane Eyre are full of disclosures that seem highly inappropriate, like the history of his mistresses. This would definitely set off alarm bells in a Jane Austen novel; Jane Eyre takes the sordid revelations with an odd calm.
It’s really hard (though well worth the effort) to imagine Mr. Darcy dressing up as female gypsy to deceive his own houseguests — definitely the craziest moment in a novel bursting with them.
But Mr. Rochester crosses a line, does something that Mr. Darcy would never do, when he seeks to marry Jane Eyre deceptively. Whatever his justifications, this is clearly not acceptable, something Jane Eyre realizes too. Mr. Darcy, on the other hand, at the moment when the chips are down (when Mr. Wickham, whom he hates, elopes with Lydia Bennet) acts with remarkable decision and unselfishness, putting himself to a great deal of trouble on the remote chance that this might eventually cause Elizabeth to change her mind and marry him. He uses his wealth and power for good, something Mr. Rochester cannot really claim.
Is Charlotte Bronte giving us a more realistic portrait of a man, pushed to desperation by love or lust or whatever? Is Mr. Darcy unrealistically noble? For 200 years, the difficulty in deciding this has helped make them each, in their own way, immortal.